I recently read and very much enjoyed Cal Newport’s excellent book Deep Work, in which he argues for the value and importance of work he labels, as per the title, deep work. This kind of work, Newport describes, tends to be cognitively demanding and requires sustained focus and attention unlike its opposite, shallow work, which is typically frenetic, associated with networked tools, and inherently distracting. In this book, Newport makes the case that deep work is not only high-value, but personally enriching and satisfying.
We should, he argues, try to embed regular opportunities into our routines for such sessions of sustained focus and attention. By doing so, we create opportunities to make substantial progress on whatever projects or commitments matter most to us and that demand most cognitive effort, which, he suggests, are the very commitments that will offer the greatest rewards. Set yourself ambitious and wildly important goals that enrich your life and have meaning for you and then focus your deep work efforts on achieving these goals
However, as he also explains, the intention to do this is rarely enough. We should instead augment intention with routines that seek to limit distraction and provide a space for regular deep work. This post will seek to outline a couple of the strategies that Newport offers that resonated with me, as well as more personal reflection on my productivity goals for the coming academic year.
A Philosophy for Deep Work
If committed to finding more time for deep work, Newport argues it’s useful to have an underpinning philosophy that helps to determine the kind of schedule or routine one might prefer for deep work activities. Deciding this in advance will help us to better plan for how deep work might become more of a feature of our working life. Newport offers these broad categories:
- Bimodal: This is where we set times to focus on deep work, either at the scale of a year or a week. So it might be, for example, we dedicate a couple of days in the week to deep work activities or even a couple of weeks in the year.
- Rhythmic: Here, we make deep work part of the rhythm of our daily work by setting aside a given time for it each day
- Journalistic: So-called for anecdotal reasons that Newport explores, this method relies on going into deep work mode whenever possible, but, given its spontaneous nature, can be difficult to plan
For my own part, 1 or 2 seem most compelling, with 1 naturally fitting my schedule as a teacher in the sense of devoting time in holidays to deep work. But, 2 is perhaps more realistic during term time and on a daily basis. This also helps to embed deep work as a routine.
However, what specific routines might support this capacity for added deep work?
Give Every Minute of Every Day a Job
The basic principle of assigning every minute of the working day a job to do, otherwise known as time blocking, is a strategy I have been aware of for a while, but not yet implemented in my own life. This is definitely something I want to do for the upcoming academic year.
As Newport argues, we spend a lot of time on autopilot so end up doing a lot more shallow work than we might estimate, especially as this can often be things that are visibly busy and make us feel productive, even if not high value. The rationale behind giving every minute of every working day a job, then, is to be intentional about how we use the time we have. It is not about being rigid or sticking slavishly to a pre-determined schedule but focussing on how we’re using our time.
Here’s how it works:
- Whenever you complete the review of the day, either the evening before or in the morning, divide the day into blocks of time, for example hourly blocks
- Assign activities or tasks to those blocks, for example from 9 to 12 work on X
As a teacher, this happens naturally anyway since our teaching commitments are always scheduled in this way so the aim is to schedule our other tasks in a similar way. We can also include blocks for non-work focussed activities, like lunch, a walk, relaxation, etc. It’s also helpful not to assign every single small task a block of time, like, for instance, blocking time for a 10 minute email. Instead we should batch similar tasks together in one block so that we give ourselves a dedicated block of time for checking and processing emails, as one example. At the end of the process of assigning upcoming tasks to blocks, every minute of the day should belong to a block of time.
But, what if something goes wrong? What if a task takes longer than anticipated? What if a new task that needs urgent attention appears? No problem because, as Newport reminds us, the idea is not to stick rigidly to this schedule, but to become more attentive to what our time is being used for so we can maximise deep work at the expense of shallow work. If something does go wrong, then, we simply recalibrate. This might be tweaking the schedule to accommodate the new task or using overflow blocks where we assign X to a block but say if X is completed earlier than anticipated work on Y, but if X takes longer then we have the space to continue working without disrupting another task.
How might I start using this in my own daily routines?
For me, the issue is very much as Newport describes that without some intentional awareness of how I’m using time, I often revert back to work that is visibly busy but often shallow because this provides the comfort and impression of working hard and doing a lot.
So, I am going to try to give every minute of the working day a job. I’ll plan this out in my end of day routine so I finish work with a very clear sense of what the next day will hold, offering security in the knowledge there is nothing that I need to be thinking about. There are certain tasks that will be recurring and non-negotiable, like teaching and meetings, but around these times I’ll block out slots for other work, trying to identity time each day for uninterrupted, focussed deep work (and so opting for the rhythmic model described above). I’ll try to make this the same time each day, but obviously this may not be possible. This will become a time to switch off and focus exclusively on a big project without distraction.
I will also try to batch more administrative tasks (like checking emails) to set times each day so rather than constantly checking my inbox I set aside a dedicated time each day and outside of that time avoid looking at it. Blocking time in this way will also be really helpful for lesson planning and things like marking, where I set aside a block of time to plan all of the upcoming lessons. I already use the task manager Todoist and Google calendar so this would be really easy to automate and track.
The End of Day Shutdown Ritual
Newport talks a lot about the value of having a specific end of day shutdown routine or ritual which signals a definite end point to the working day. This is valuable because, as he argues, it gives our mind space to recharge as well as helping to create a more healthy work-life balance. He doesn’t talk about when to shut down or prescribe a time when work should stop, as that will differ for everyone, but rather that when we do decide to stop we do actually stop.
One way to help us to switch off is ritualising the end of the day and here’s what Newport suggests:
- Take a final look at your email inbox to check if anything needs attention and process anything outstanding so you get to inbox zero
- Transfer any tasks that were gathered during the day into the appropriate section of your task manager or wherever you store tasks so you are content everything that was generated during the day is now appropriately processed
- Check the next couple of days on your task manager just to be sure there is nothing coming up that you missed and that’s important
- Make a plan for the next day and allocate every minute of the working day a job to do
- Say ‘shutdown complete’, which Newport admits sounds really cheesy, but this helps to ritualise the process and helps to prime our mind that there are no further unresolved activities or commitments that need to be addressed and that we can, truly, switch off
How might I start using this in my daily routine?
I think I am definitely in the camp of people that Newport describes who think about work after work. I suspect most of us are! The benefit of this routine is it provides a clear demarcation as to when the working day ends. This end point will not be the same for everyone but we should all have such an end point. This kind of routine helps to reassure ourselves that we can switch off and that there is no residual work commitments that continue to fight for our attention. We can then end the day safe in the knowledge tomorrow is taken care of, fully planned, and there is nothing we have overlooked.
As such, I’m going to try out Newport’s shut down routine exactly as he describes, including saying ‘shut down complete’ (!). I agree this part especially sounds very cheesy and I’ll feel stupid saying it, but I sympathise with the rationale that it offers a precise and specific moment at which we leave work behind for the day. I already do much of what he describes with Todoist, for example, checking the next day’s tasks and getting to inbox zero, but this will help to make my end of day routine more methodical and habitual.
It’s worth saying too that, for me anyway, work and non-work are naturally blurred in the sense I consider a lot of my free time to be voluntarily occupied by work related activities like reading, thinking about teaching, writing blogs. I don’t expect to stop doing these things after the shutdown has completed, but rather the more obviously work related activities like lesson planning, marking, and the like.
Fixed Schedule Productivity
The shutdown ritual described above doesn’t offer any sense of when you might want to conclude the working day, given it will be different for everyone. Whilst perhaps not the best idea, you could, for example, choose to shutdown at 11pm every night. The shutdown says nothing about working hours, but just that there ought to be a ritualised and definite end to your working day that becomes habitual.
That said, part of the benefit of time blocking and deep work, both of which promise a more intense and focussed commitment to working activities, is that you don’t need to work as long. By giving every minute of your day a job, you are, in essence, becoming far more productive, reducing the time spent doing shallow work, and minimising distraction. So, part of its benefit is to capitalise on this added productivity by reclaiming some of the time that might otherwise have been spent working.
Fixed schedule productivity works alongside time blocking and having a definite shutdown ritual by imposing an artificial but strict daily quota of working hours. In other words, you finish work at a specified time and try whenever possible to not work after this point. What this specified time will be will of course vary, but if you are time blocking efficiently and including opportunities for more focussed and intense deep work sessions then it should be earlier than at present.
The benefit here, like time blocking, is to help us to become more aware of our time by reminding ourselves it is a finite resource that ought to be managed very carefully. So, artificially imposed inflexibility means we treat the time we do have as the precious resource it is. However, it also plays to Parkinson’s Law which states that work fills the time allotted to it. By having a fixed daily quota of working hours we are more likely to complete tasks in a more timely manner during the working day, especially when every minute of that working day is assigned a specific job. This also ensures there is time to recharge, reflect on the days activities, and balance work with non-work activities, all of which should boost productivity in the long term anyway.
How might I use this in my own daily routine?
Starting in the new academic year I want to try this strategy so that, like Newport describes, I set myself a specific end of day time and stick to this wherever possible. This time might be different on different days, although I’ll try to make it the same time. My hope is that by using time blocking and maximising opportunities for deep work, I’ll be more productive than previously, and so this surplus time will make it easier to stick to this fixed schedule. It will also have the benefit of helping me to be more mindful of how many hours I have available in a given week, making it easier to be more urgent and focussed when I am working. Once I reach this fixed time I then complete the end of day shutdown ritual and enjoy the rest of the evening safe in the knowledge everything has been processed, I’m fully ready for tomorrow, and everything is in hand and nothing has been overlooked. If the shutdown ritual offers a method and rationale for ending the day then fixed scheduled productivity offers a when to do it.
My Final Thoughts
I agree entirely with the central premise of Newport’s book that deep work is the kind of work that offers not only most satisfaction and stimulation, but that it is the kind of work that adds most value to my working life. In other words, it’s the kind of work that genuinely moves me towards my aspirations and goals in a way that the visibly busy shallow work may not. However, I also agree with Newport that such a commitment to deep work does not take place without the routines and habits to support it.
As such, my productivity goals for the coming academic year, in light of my thinking around Newport’s book, are:
1. To decide in advance the core goals and ambitions that are most meaningful to me and that will help to produce most value in my life and that will therefore become the primary target of my deep work
2. To schedule time for deep work in the rhythmic fashion where I build into my daily routine uninterrupted, sustained and focussed opportunities to work towards these goals
3. Begin to use timeblocking alongside my continued use of Todoist and Google calendar so that every minute of my working day has a job, with time allotted to deep work and shallow work occupying the peripheries of my schedule
4. Introduce a very definite end of day shutdown routine which will include processing any unprocessed tasks, reaching inbox zero, and planning for the next day. I can then conclude the day safe in the knowledge there is nothing else that is going to be competing for my attention until tomorrow
5. Adopt fixed productivity scheduling where I decide in advance a fixed end to the working day on the assumption my working hours are going to be more productive and more focussed than in previous years. This can of course be tweaked at time of particular need, but the hope is my added productivity will make it do everything I need and more in within this set time.
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